Mesopotamian Demons & Monsters

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Ancient Mesopotamians believed that demons and monsters were part of their daily life. In this lesson, find out how their ideas about these kinds of creatures differs somewhat from how we view them today.

The Devil

Some might think the idea of demons and monsters is silly, but what about the Devil? He or the idea of him persists to this day and he is, in a large sense, a monster. Ancient Mesopotamians weren't much different than modern people in believing that such entities existed. This lesson will go over the concept of demons and monsters as it pertains to ancient Mesopotamian mythology.

Demons & Monsters

What is a demon? What is a monster? What are these terms with respect to ancient Mesopotamian mythology? Let's learn about this first.

Demon is actually a word that comes to us from the Greek word 'daimon', which refers to a spirit or supernatural being of sorts, that is not necessarily evil. The Akkadian approximation of this would be 'rabisu' and the Sumerian approximation would be 'maskim'. But these terms need not refer to an evil being. They could be seen as a good 'demon' as well. For instance, Assyrian spells sometimes qualify the 'demonic' spirit as good or bad, saying 'Get out, bad rabisu! Come in, good rabisu!' In this lesson we'll stick to using demon in the modern sense of the word unless specifically mentioned otherwise.

A demon is viewed today as some sort of upright creature with a mix of human aspects and non-humans aspects. A monster is seen as some sort of animal hybrid that walks on all fours.

However, ancient Mesopotamians themselves sometimes described demons as having shapeless form. They were neither male nor female, and they had no spouses or children like a god or goddess might. Some demons apparently didn't even understand what consequences their actions would have, and they paid no attention to prayers or offerings.

Demons are found infrequently in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. Most often, we know their names but don't really have good descriptions of what they were, did or symbolized. One reason demons may be very rarely depicted in ancient Mesopotamian art is that people back then believed the image of an evil demon could put someone in danger. When they are mentioned, demons often appear in groups of seven or they perform seven of something. This is mainly mentioned in magical incantations. Our idea of 'lucky 7' might have had a very different meaning to the ancient Mesopotamians.

The ancient Mesopotamian demons were basically tools of the gods. They could be set forth by the gods to punish people for their sins. Thus, many times these demons were seen as being part of winds or storms. These demons could also hurt people by causing some types of diseases. However, unlike modern views about demons, ancient Mesopotamians didn't seem to believe that demons could 'possess' someone as we often see in our movies today.

Examples of Demons & Monsters

Again, there are few demonic figures or monsters that are described in any semblance of detail. The demons we have more information about include Lamashtu.

Lamashtu was the daughter of Anu, the god of the sky. Lamashtu attacked pregnant women, mothers and babies. She would touch a pregnant woman's stomach seven times to kill the fetus. She had feet like that of an eagle and very long fingernails and body hair. She had the head of a lion and the ears and teeth of a donkey. Her favorite meals consisted of human flesh and bones topped off with a drink of boiling human blood.

Another group of demons was known as lilu (male) or lillitu (female). These were the spirits of people who died unmarried. They would enter a person's home through their windows and look for a victim that could become the spouse they weren't able to have in life. By doing so, they would usually lead to that person's early death.

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